Blueprint to building a winner: Start swinging a wrecking ball

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The 2000 season just passed its mathematical midpoint, which is time enough to conclude that the Chicago White Sox have successfully challenged one of the basic tenets of modern baseball.

Maybe money isn't everything.

The youthful White Sox will arrive at the All-Star break with an 11 1/2 -game lead over the prohibitively favored - and heavily funded - Cleveland Indians. They look like a lock to reach the playoffs and vindicate owner Jerry Reinsdorf's unpopular decision to unload most of the club's veterans over the past four years.

Go figure.

The undeniable correlation between payroll size and on-field success is under attack from a number of directions. The Oakland Athletics have built a contender from the ground up. The Florida Marlins are above .500 just three years after gutting their world championship club and turning their future over to the player development department. The Seattle Mariners couldn't afford to keep Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey, but they are back on top of the American League West anyway.

Finally, smart front-office management is having as great an impact as deep-pocketed ownership, at least in some quarters. Big-money teams still reign over several divisions - the Braves have had the National League East locked up for the past decade - but the ability of some gutsy executives to face economic reality is starting to pay off.

South Side solution

White Sox general manager Ron Schueler became a minor villain in Chicago as he presided over the dismantling of a White Sox franchise that was getting too little bang for the big bucks it was paying to established stars like Robin Ventura and Alex Fernandez.

He built a younger, more versatile team around franchise star Frank Thomas, and the White Sox are running away in the American League Central race.

They seem almost certain to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993, though Thomas has been quick to caution his young teammates against overconfidence.

"I've seen a lot of things happen," he said recently. "I've seen teams do super well in the first half and just flop in the second half. I've seen guys do terrible in the first half and unbelievable in the second half. So you just don't get too high at this level of baseball.

"We've been lucky. No major injuries in the first half, dealing with stuff like that. We haven't faced what other teams are facing."

Nevertheless, the White Sox blueprint for increased emphasis on youth and player development has clearly been validated, and is likely to be copied by other teams.

Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks already has pointed to the White Sox as the model for sweeping changes in Arlington if the Rangers fail to climb out of the AL West cellar.

"They have a $32 million payroll, but they've stuck with their young players and it's worked," Hicks told reporters recently. "I think you're going to see that with us."

They are doing the same thing in Oakland, where the A's have matured into one of the most exciting offensive teams in either league, but they still enter the break looking up at the resilient Mariners in the AL West.

Who needs Griffey?

C'mon, who really expected the M's to shrug off the departure of one of the most productive players in the history of the game [Griffey] and re-emerge as a strong playoff contender?

Legendary executive Pat Gillick always seems to find a way. He built the Blue Jays into a two-time world champion, then went to the AL Championship Series in each of his first two years with the Orioles. Now, in his first year in Seattle, the Mariners are thriving in the wake of the spring deal that sent Griffey to the Cincinnati Reds.

The Reds, meanwhile, are looking way up at the first-place St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and there are rumblings that manager Jack McKeon may soon be replaced.

Griffey has delivered characteristic run-production numbers, but the Reds have struggled to achieve a consistent offensive chemistry. Promising Sean Casey has been a major disappointment after emerging as one of the game's brightest young stars in 1999. Outfielder Dante Bichette only now is starting to look comfortable in the middle of the lineup.

Factor in a starting rotation that features just one dependable pitcher (Denny Neagle) and it's not hard to see why some of the luster has come off GM Jim Bowden's spring triumph.

Instead, it was the spring training blockbuster pulled off by Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty that altered the balance of power in the NL Central. The acquisition of outfielder Jim Edmonds added significant pop to a lineup that had been something of a one-man show the previous two years.

Superstar Mark McGwire still is the cornerstone of the Cardinals' offense, but Edmonds has added Most Valuable Player-caliber numbers to an offensive attack that averages almost a run a game more than the second-place Reds.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the NL Central is at the other end of the standings, where the defending division champion Houston Astros own the worst record in baseball and soon may begin selling off some of their veteran stars.

The NL East has produced the predictable struggle between the Braves and the Mets, who entered the final weekend of the first half separated by just 2 1/2 games.

Strong comebacks by Braves first baseman Andres Galarraga and catcher Javy Lopez have offset the loss of starting pitcher John Smoltz to a season-ending arm injury. But the Mets - fueled in the first half by a 10-2 performance from Al Leiter and the usual big offensive numbers from Mike Piazza - could be poised to make a move late in the season, especially if pitching ace Mike Hampton surges in the second half.

Things getting rocky

The NL West race might be an even tougher call. The division figured to come down to the two richest clubs - the Diamondbacks and Dodgers - but the upstart Colorado Rockies have parlayed the best home record in baseball into a place near the top of the standings.

If they gave an Executive of the Year award at midseason, it would have to go to new Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd, who turned the team's roster upside down over the winter and fashioned a far more balanced, far more competitive club than the one that frustrated former manager Jim Leyland into retirement last year.

Of course, the Diamondbacks remain the class of the division, while the Dodgers remain an enigma. If the White Sox provide the most compelling evidence that money isn't everything, the Dodgers are Exhibit B. They have a $90 million payroll and so little to show for it that managing general partner (and former studio executive) John Daly already is fending off questions about the job security of manager Davey Johnson and GM Kevin Malone.

"I don't contemplate making changes," he said this week. "Go look at my history. Go look at 25 years at CBS and my record at Warner Brothers. I don't make changes for the sake of making changes."

Stay tuned.

Though the Rockies are right in the hunt, the team with the best chance of upending Arizona might be the San Francisco Giants, who have dug out of an early-season slump to climb within four games of first place.

The only other race with so many teams in such close proximity to the lead is the AL East, with three teams bunched at the top of the standings.

The Toronto Blue Jays, another team that downsized and retooled in the 1990s, have taken over first place for the moment, but the two-time defending world champion Yankees figure to regain control of the division race in the second half.

Why? Because Roger Clemens and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez have returned from the disabled list, and power-hitting outfielder David Justice has been added to the offensive lineup. And because they're the Yankees.

Who will shine?

From an individual standpoint, the first half of the season has featured enough great offensive performances to prompt a Major League Baseball investigation of the new "Bud Selig" baseballs (they have been exonerated) and put at least one record in jeopardy.

No, the home run record is not in danger. McGwire is only on a 60-homer pace. But Anaheim Angels outfielder Darin Erstad is on pace to set the major-league record for hits in a season. He reached the mathematical midpoint of the season last weekend with 130 hits, which projects beyond the single-season record of 257, held by St. Louis Browns Hall of Famer George Sisler.

Diamondbacks left-hander Randy Johnson and Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez continue to vie for the distinction of being baseball's most overpowering pitcher, but the winningest pitcher at midseason is disgruntled Sports Illustrated coverboy David Wells, whose 14-2 record puts him on pace to win 27 games, the most since Bob Welch won 27 for Oakland in 1990.

If he does, maybe the Blue Jays can dethrone the Yankees in the AL East. Stranger things have already happened in the first half of the season.

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